Two years ago, filmmaker Ramin Bahrani visited Tampa Bay on a statewide search for inspiration.
Bahrani, whom the late Roger Ebert deemed "the new great American director" after seeing his indies Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, believed Florida's foreclosure crisis held a story worth telling.
The result is 99 Homes, opening nationwide Friday.
Bahrani, 40, crossed Florida talking to families in foreclosure, attorneys on both sides and reporters, including those at the Tampa Bay Times.
Then, Bahrani noticed something about real estate brokers he interviewed who knock on doors serving eviction notices.
"I was surprised that they all carried guns," Bahrani said by telephone. "All of them. They were so scared, who was on the other side of the door?
"That's when the story started to evolve from, let's say a social, maybe boring foreclosure movie to this thriller that it is."
99 Homes stars Michael Shannon as Rick Carver, a merciless Orlando broker stripping and flipping foreclosed houses, not always legally. One evictee, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), becomes his morally conflicted apprentice, and loopholes become a noose.
"The idea came to me on that first trip in Florida," Bahrani said, "connecting the broker with a guy he evicted, so two opposing ideological forces could bang heads in this Faustian story, dealing with the devil."
99 Homes is set in 2010 when Florida's 14 percent foreclosure rate was the nation's worst. Rick and Dennis' relationship frames a larger picture of complex, even crooked foreclosure tactics that have been used by anyone in the money chain from bankers to day laborers.
"There are even more, by the way," Bahrani said. "I couldn't fit them all in."
Florida was always Bahrani's first choice for setting 99 Homes, although the movie was principally filmed around New Orleans. Production incentives, or state benefits used to attract movie productions, are available there, unlike Florida where funding for those purposes ran dry in 2013 and hasn't been replenished. California, Arizona and Nevada were hit nearly as hard by the housing crisis but weren't creatively right.
"Florida has many connotations, but to me, it seems like the safest, the cleanest of those four states," Bahrani said.
"When you think of California, you think of the film industry, the porn industry, corrupt things, chaos. Nevada and Arizona, you're getting into prostitution and gambling, the Wild West. But Florida? I think of golf courses and Disney.
"The idea that this would be happening there seemed more startling to me. It worked out perfectly."
While in St. Petersburg, Bahrani connected with foreclosure defense attorney Matthew Weidner, who he said shared cases of fraud that were "very specific, supported by pleadings, to inform this guy that his impulse is real," Weidner said. "It's much different when you read depositions and pleadings. If you're a storyteller, when you tell that story with a foundation of truth, you become a lot more confident, you're bolder in what you're telling."
Another key contact was West Palm Beach foreclosure attorney Lynn Szymoniak, Bahrani said, who exposed the bank practice of "robo-signing" mortgages.
"She took me to the 'rocket dockets,' the foreclosure courts where they decide your case in 60 seconds flat," Bahrani said. "That was revealing, the massive fraud there, the chaos.
"I remember there was a Hispanic gentleman who came with an interpreter. The judge said, 'Who is this?' He said, 'I'm the interpreter.' . . . The judge said, 'Well, if he doesn't speak English, it's too bad for him. He's not going to have an interpreter.'"
Rick Carver is a composite of corruption, with a hand in everything from stealing appliances, to reporting directly to a foreclosure mill attorney (Clancy Brown) "loosely inspired" by since-disbarred Plantation lawyer David J. Stern. "I think I have to say that for legal reasons," Bahrani said.
99 Homes also is about the emotional impact of foreclosure after eviction, where to go, how to make ends meet. Dennis moves his son and mother (Laura Dern) into a seedy motel, inspired by evictees Bahrani met at one on the highway to Disney World.
"So, in the shadow of Disney, you have motels populated by gangbangers, prostitutes, migrant workers and families," Bahrani said. "So many kids that the schools would divert buses to pick them up at the motel, as you see in the film. This is happening in America.
"As a journalist, you know this was just a headline. Some people wrote the emotional story, but basically for the average person like me in New York, it was a headline, a statistic.
"Coming down to Florida and seeing it happen live, hearing people's pain, was disturbing."
In those scenes, 99 Homes conveys Bahrani's discomfort. In others, his distaste for the greed culture Rick symbolizes — "rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners" — is unmistakable.
"Believe me, I don't have the answers," Bahrani said. "I'm just a filmmaker, a storyteller. But I feel, as a country, we've got to start talking about where we are.
"Because we're not a country of winners and losers. We're something much greater than that. We've got to get away from that kind of language. We've got to find a system that's not so rigged."
Contact Steve Persall at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.